Hanoi’s most important cultural and historical monuments are found in the Ba Dinh district, immediately west of the Old Quarter, where the Ly kings established their Imperial City in the eleventh century. The venerable Temple of Literature and the picturesque One Pillar Pagoda both date from this time, but nothing else remains of the Ly kings’ vermilion palaces, whose last vestiges were cleared in the late nineteenth century to accommodate an expanding French administration. Most impressive of the district’s colonial buildings is the dignified Residence of the Governor-General of Indochina, now known as the Presidential Palace. After 1954 some of the surrounding gardens gave way in their turn to Ba Dinh parade ground, the National Assembly Hall and two great centres of pilgrimage: Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and Museum. The nearby Botanical Gardens, however, survived to provide a welcome haven from modern Hanoi’s hustle and bustle. East of Ba Dinh Square the citadel encloses a restricted military area. Its most famous feature is the Cot Co Flag Tower that dominates the extreme southwest corner, next to one of Hanoi’s most rewarding museums, the Military History Museum. Although there’s a lot to see in this area, it’s possible to cover everything described below in a single day, with an early start at the mausoleum and surrounding sites, leaving the Fine Arts Museum along with the Military History Museum and Temple of Literature until later in the day.
More about Vietnam
Find out more
Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
In the tradition of great Communist leaders, when Ho Chi Minh died in 1969 his body was embalmed, though not put on public view until after 1975. The mausoleum is probably Hanoi’s most popular sight, attracting hordes of visitors at weekends and on national holidays; from school parties to ageing confederates, all come to pay their respects to “Uncle Ho”.
Visitors to the mausoleum (note the very limited opening hours) must leave bags and cameras at one of the reception centres, the most convenient being that at 8 Hung Vuong, from where you’ll be escorted by soldiers in immaculate uniforms. Respectful behaviour is requested, which means appropriate dress (no shorts or sleeveless vests) and removing hats and keeping silence within the sanctum. Note that each autumn the mausoleum usually closes for a few weeks while Ho undergoes maintenance.
Inside the building’s marble entrance hall Ho Chi Minh’s most quoted maxim greets you: “nothing is more important than independence and freedom”. Then it’s up the stairs and into a cold, dark room where this charismatic hero lies under glass, a small, pale figure glowing in the dim light, his thin hands resting on black covers. Despite the rather macabre overtones, it’s hard not to be affected by the solemn atmosphere, though in actual fact Ho’s last wish was to be cremated and his ashes divided between the north, centre and south of the country, with each site marked only by a simple shelter. The grandiose building where he now lies seems sadly at odds with this unassuming, egalitarian man.
The Temple of Literature
The Temple of Literature
Hanoi’s most revered temple complex, the Temple of Literature, or Van Mieu, is both Vietnam’s principal Confucian sanctuary and its historical centre of learning. The temple is also one of the few remnants of the Ly kings’ original city and retains a strong sense of harmony despite reconstruction and embellishment over the nine hundred years since its dedication in 1070.
Entry is through the two-tiered Van Mieu Gate. The temple’s ground plan, modelled on that of Confucius’s birthplace in Qufu, China, consists of a succession of five walled courtyards. The first two are havens of trim lawns and noble trees separated by a simple pavilion.
The third courtyard
Enter via the imposing Khue Van Cac, a double-roofed gateway built in 1805, its wooden upper storey ornamented with four radiating suns. Central to the third courtyard is the Well of Heavenly Clarity – a rectangular pond – to either side of which stand the temple’s most valuable relics, 82 stone stelae mounted on tortoises. Each stele records the results of a state examination held at the National Academy between 1442 and 1779, though the practice only started in 1484, and gives brief biographical details of successful candidates. It’s estimated that up to thirty stelae have gone missing or disintegrated over the years, but the two oldest, dating from 1442 and 1448, occupy centre spot on opposite sides of the pond.
The fourth courtyard
Passing through the Gate of Great Success brings you to the fourth courtyard and the main temple buildings. Two pavilions on either side once contained altars dedicated to the 72 disciples of Confucius, but now house administrative offices and souvenir shops. During Tet (Vietnamese New Year) this courtyard is the scene of calligraphy competitions and “human chess games”, with people instead of wooden pieces on the square paving stones.
The ceremonial hall
The hall, a long, low building whose sweeping tiled roof is crowned by two lithe dragons bracketing a full moon, stands on the courtyard’s north side. Here the king and his mandarins would make sacrifices before the altar of Confucius, accompanied by booming drums and bronze bells echoing among the magnificent ironwood pillars. Within the ceremonial hall lies the temple sanctuary, at one time prohibited even to the king, where a large and striking statue of Confucius sits with his four principal disciples, resplendent in vivid reds and golds. Between the altar and sanctuary is a Music Room, where musicians playing traditional instruments provide a great opportunity for photos.
The fifth courtyard
The fifth and final courtyard housed the National Academy, regarded as Vietnam’s first university, which was founded in 1076 to educate princes and high officials in Confucian doctrine. Later, the academy held triennial examinations to select the country’s senior mandarins, a practice that continued almost uninterrupted until 1802 when Emperor Gia Long moved the nation’s capital to Hué. In 1947 French bombs destroyed the academy buildings but they have now been painstakingly reconstructed, including an elegant two-storey pavilion housing a small museum and an altar dedicated to a noted director of the university in the fourteenth century, Chu Van An. Upstairs, three more statues honour King Ly Thanh Tong, the founder of Van Mieu; Ly Than Tong, who added the university; and Le Thanh Tong, instigator of the stelae. The exhibits are mostly post-eighteenth century, including 1920s photos of the temple, and students’ textbooks, ink-stones and other accoutrements, such as a wine gourd for the fashion-conscious nineteenth-century scholar. Recitals of traditional music are held in the side-pavilion according to demand.
Becoming a Mandarin
Becoming a Mandarin
Examinations for admission to the Imperial bureaucracy were introduced by the Ly kings in the eleventh century as part of a range of reforms that served to underpin the nation’s stability for several centuries. Vietnam’s exams were based on the Chinese system, though included Buddhist and Taoist texts along with the Confucian classics. It took until the fifteenth century, however, for academic success, rather than noble birth or patronage, to become the primary means of entry to the civil service. By this time the system was open to all males, excluding “traitors, rebels, immoral people and actors”, but in practice very few candidates outside the scholar-gentry class progressed beyond the lowest rung.
First came regional exams, thi huong, after which successful students (who could be any age from 16 to 61) would head for Hanoi, equipped with their sleeping mat, ink-stone and writing brush, to take part in the second-level thi hoi. These national exams might last up to six weeks and were as much an evaluation of poetic style and knowledge of the classic texts as they were of administrative ability; it was even felt necessary to ban the sale of strong liquor to candidates in the 1870s. Those who passed all stages were granted a doctorate, tien si, and were eligible for the third and final test, the thi dinh, or palace exam, set by the king himself. Some years as few as three tien si would be awarded whereas the total number of candidates could be as high as six thousand, and during nearly three hundred exams held between 1076 and 1779, only 2313 tien si were recorded. Afterwards the king would give his new mandarins a cap, gown, parasol and a horse on which to return to their home village in triumphal procession.